David Fincher's 'The Game': One Part Fascinating and Two Parts Frustrating

The Game (Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]I have always found David Fincher's 1997 thriller The Game rather frustrating and now I've been given a chance to explore it once again as Criterion has released a brand new Blu-ray edition of the film as it celebrates its 15th anniversary.

Criterion originally brought the film to laserdisc back in 1998, and has now created a brand new transfer for this Blu-ray release as well as delivered two different audio tracks, one the theatrical 5.1 surround mix and the other the near field 5.1 surround mix originally created for in '97 for the Criterion laserdisc. The audio and video are excellent, and the film certainly remains intriguing but, as I said, I find it continually frustrating.

The Game finds pleasure and thrills in tormenting wealthy investment banker Nicholas Van Orton, a role perfect for Michael Douglas, playing it a bit looser than his Gordon Gekko from 1987, but no less privileged and pedestaled. Nicholas is used to a life of luxury, getting what he wants and walking over anyone in his way. This life is thrown for a loop after his brother (Sean Penn) gifts him an opportunity to take part in a new sort of "game".

Handing over intimate details about himself, Nicholas invites Consumer Recreation Services (CRS) to test him in a game that would appear to have real life consequences, but the stability and under-the-surface fragility of a man whose upbringing and father's suicide has made him who he is today, proves to make this game almost too much to handle.

Nicholas is chased through alleyways, shot at and left for dead in a locked cab sinking into the river,. Watching it again I began to feel as if The Game may be Fincher's most sadistic film, which is truly saying something once you consider the likes of Se7en, Fight Club and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

It's relentless in its torment of Van Orton and in most ways it works, transforming the audience from a judgmental peanut gallery to concerned onlookers by the film's end. Van Orton is the embodiment of what we've come to call a "one percenter" in the last couple years. The 99% share no compassion for this type of man and early on he lets us know who he is through his treatment of his secretaries, a lack of humanity in his treatment of business partners and his belief his wealth will get him out of any situation -- "I am a very wealthy man, whatever they are paying you I will double it!" Money's not going to save you this time Niko.

The emphasis at the beginning of the film implies Nicholas Van Orton needs to learn a lesson, and learn he does, but this also gets to the heart of what bothers my about the film.

NOTE: If you have not yet seen the film you may want to stop here. Spoilers will be revealed below.

My problems come at the beginning and end with a general satisfaction for the mystery in the middle.

To begin, from the minute Nicholas receives the CRS gift certificate from his brother I don't believe he'll ever use it. I don't see him as a man whose curiosity is piqued by a mysterious invitation that will change his life. I lose even more confidence in the story when he allows himself to be subjected to physical and psychological tests for the better part of a day only to be satisfied with a parting good bye and a "We'll be in touch."

Despite my inability to accept these events, I am able to get over these issues since the film finds several ways to capture the audience's attention from there on out, but I found it to be a conflict of character from the start and I find a similar problem in the end.

Once Nicholas has been run through the ringer and the game plays out, we watch as he decides the only solution is to commit suicide, same as his father. Jumping off a tall building, crashing through glass onto an inflated air bag that saves him, Nicholas walks away unharmed outside the cuts and bruises suffered over the course of his torment. He has survived the game's physical test and its psychological effect has made him a new man. This bothers me.

I can't accept the way this film ends and Nicholas' acceptance of what he's just been through. Yes, we see moments of change in Nicholas late in the game, but they come across as contrived story elements rather than a natural progression.

I also refuse to believe a man, that was only a moment ago willing to kill himself, would so quickly be "okay". Perhaps you'd argue he's not okay and will now need years of therapy to even achieve some semblance of "okay", which is fine, but the way the film wraps up I simply don't get that impression.

Listening to the audio commentary, screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris mention how once Nicholas falls onto the air bag the film, in essence, is over and the rest is just a matter of wrapping it up. If the story ends there, why not end it?

Given the puzzling nature of the narrative, I would have rather seen the film fade to black as Nicholas was helped off the air bag, and before he speaks with his brother (whom he thought he'd just killed up on the roof). His eyes would blur as his brother came into view and soon we fade to black. Then, before the credits, the film picks up again, but only briefly. We see Nicholas with Deborah Kara Unger's character at some unknown point in the future. They're having a romantic dinner together and gazing into one another's eyes happily. We don't hear what they're saying and the scene again fades to black and the credits roll.

This kind of ending serves several purposes, one is to continue the mystery and the question of whether or not Nicholas played the game or if the game is still playing him? Two, just how far into the future does the audience believe we've gone? Depending on the answer to the first question you can begin to question whether Nicholas actually got his comeuppance or if he successfully manipulated the game to get the result he wanted.

To me, the ending, as is, is wrapped up too nice and neat and I don't believe it or accept it based on the story as I understand it. This isn't to discount the filmmaking, which is outstanding as Fincher shows more control over the camera here than perhaps in any of his other films. The fluidity of its movement, first noticeable as Van Orton pulls up in front of his office, the camera begins tracking him through the door before he even steps out. The way he pushes the camera in on his characters while largely maintaining wide-angle shots, so as to say, "Look, no strings."

Fincher is a magician in my opinion and I can appreciate so much of The Game as I do the majority of his films. It goes behind his work as a director and involves his cast -- Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Kara Unger and James Rebhorn -- Harris Savides' stunning cinematography and Howard Shore's haunting score, echoing underneath it all.

A lot of talent is is on display throughout this film and owners of this Criterion edition will drool over the appropriate (and coincidental) patchwork commentary that includes Fincher, Savides, Douglas, Brancato, Ferris, digital animation supervisor Richard "Dr." Baily, production designer Jeffrey Beecroft and visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug.

The disc also contains an hour's worth of exclusive behind-the-scenes footage and film-to-storyboard comparisons for four of the film's major set pieces, with commentary, a short alternate ending, the trailer and teaser trailer, with commentary.

To own this Blu-ray for yourself click here or if you'd rather have the DVD click here. Either way, I think if you're interested enough to read this far, this is a title you should add to your collection.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Criterion10/ Criterion10

    I was actually watching some of The Game on TV the other day, and it is a pretty entertaining film. Fincher constructs a beautiful atmosphere, very noir-ish. The problem for me is the entire third act of the film, and that eventual ending. I probably would've preferred the film even more if they took it into uncharted territories, maybe going for a surreal and unexplainable conclusion instead of one that is tied in a nice little bow. Think of a third act, written and directed by David Lynch. The Game has a very interesting story. The ending is too contrived as far as I'm concerned.

    • Israel Branco

      Exactly! I was really thinking about it after the sequence in Mexico, comparing the disconnection of the scene from the previous sequences to "Mulholland drive".

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Mv11391/ Michael

    Just saw it today, this was the one David Fincher film I haven't seen shamefully and this is his most underrated flick. Fincher was at his best here with a gripping storyline and twist & turns. Michael Douglas with one of my favorite performances from him. Sean Penn was limited but always a terrific actor. I thought Deborah Kara Unger was decent here. It was very interesting, entertaining and gripping movie. Like most, wasn't a fan of the ending. But other than that, this is in my top 5 Fincher favorite lists.

    5. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
    4. The Game
    3. Se7en
    2. Fight Club
    1. The Social Network

  • Chris138

    I wholeheartedly agree with you on the ending, as well as some sketchy character motivations early on. But the ending really brought the film down for me. I didn't believe it at all. Even for a plot like this it felt so contrived to have it end that way and make the character seem as if he accepts everything. Michael Douglas is terrific in the role and it has some suspenseful moments, but when added up as a whole I find it to be Fincher's weakest effort to date (admittedly. I have not seen Panic Room or Alien 3... yet).

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Fan/ Fan

    I love your interpretation of the ending I've thought of that too. And to further what you've said the credit song White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane that David Fincher used so it can go either way.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/G-Man/ G-Man

    Nice review of the release and story, Brad. I like "The Game" quite a bit, but agree it's not Fincher's greatest. This may be one of the first R-rated movies I ever saw. Have the DVD, but don't think I'll be upgrading to the Criterion blu-ray even with all the nice features you mentioned. Interesting how the release is the same cost for both BD and DVD.

  • David Callahan

    I can certainly see where your problems lie with the tidy ending as it clearlyakes en routes in Douglas's character progressions. But to me this is finchers fantasy movie. As Tim Burton is known for remaking countless children tales, for me this is finchers reinvisioning of a chrisas carol. I don't mean that precisely but more of a literal sense. Fincher has never been a realist filmmaker except for maybe zodiac, social network and dragon. He's far more a surealist with a visual flair like no other and this movie is classic fincher toeing that line. the movie is his attempt at meta filmmaking. Douglas goes through the same thing an audience member is often subjected to as a viewer. I think holding it under such a harsh microscope of analysis defeats the ride he intended or the adventure so to speak. Do we question that Scrooge was to pessimistic to not wake up and go that was a stupid fucking dream. I'm still an asshole as he most likely would gave. Or do we ask if Alice doesn't just wake up and go Shoah what a fucked up dream. No. We know the story is contrived but we don't care. We simply want to see the protagonist go on a journey. we already know how it will turn out cuz it's a fable or fantasy to begin with and that's what fincher was after in my opinion. An ode to grand storytelling where the filmmaker/ writer puts us into a journey outside if the realm of possibility in order to tell a visual fantasy tale. Whether or not Douglas is the type to sit thru a test would be saying something like Scrooge would never talk to a ghost. That's my take at least.

    • danny

      My. Thoughts. Exactly.

      And if I remember correctly, Fincher at one time stated that he believed this movie to be almost like an updated version of A Christmas Carol... at least in theme and story telling elements... This is my second favorite Fincher film, and I believe it to be one of the best films from the latter half of the 90's...

      And I always saw his acceptance of everything at the end to be very telling of the changes his character went through... if he had gotten pissed off, which he had every right to be, it would've been all for nothing... but I think that he is so happy to actually be alive that nothing else matters and he is able to start anew... I don't think he wanted to commit suicide, but at that moment, that was his only only choice, in his mind, he had to get away...

      • David Callahan

        I never knew that he confirmed that analogy but I found it very obvious while watching that that is what he's going for. A mid-level fincher fair is, more than not, heads and shoulders above the rest.

  • David Callahan

    Sorry by the way for the mistypes. My iPod thinks it knows what I want to write before I even write it and I don't notice till I've already posted. Hope it still makes sense lol.

  • Winchester

    I'm interested in the Scrooge parallel above now..................if only because I often wondered myself how likely it was a lifelong Scrooge type person would transform so completely so quickly.

    Aside from that, I think mostly it's mid-level Fincher but I do find it quite entertaining when I do watch it from time to time. I think you can pick at things like the ending and the motivations (although the twist itself seems perfectly Fincher as well I remember I didn't like the ending itself the first time I saw it. I felt cheated. But it's since grown on me and now I don't mind it so much) but you could also pick at the logistics of how CRS was able to set up all the different pieces of the game itself. I never had a great problem believing Douglas would initially take the bait his brother laid down. Could just be my own threshold of suspension though.

    I'm in the mood to rewatch it now.

  • Mike

    Re: the main character becoming 'ok' moments after trying to commit suicide.... Any est graduate gets this. The film is a metaphor for the "instant enlightenment" offered by that program, and occasionally attained by its attendees.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/navaneethks/ navaneethks

    On Amazon for $16.49 just for today! ordered my copy!